I attended the local host committee reception last night—thanking all the volunteers who make the meeting possible. It was a fabulous reception, sponsored by Ovation TV at the Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania. The site is the 1873 National Historic Landmark Masonic Temple. It has five inner sanctums (which is probably not the right technical term) each embellished in different style: Greek, Egyptian, Colonial, Norman and one I had trouble identifying—it might have been “Hebrew.”
Which is my point—most of the time I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. Or I knew what it was (like this door knocker) but not its significance. Every square foot of the interior of the building is covered with symbols, clearly borrowed from other traditions but signifying something very particular in this context. But what? Very helpful volunteers were on hand to answer questions, but talking to people is, for me, a completely different experience than observing closely, and it is hard to interweave the two.
I wonder how many museum visitors have the same experience in our institutions. I have no formal training in art history, but I do have a thorough grounding in classical mythology, religious studies, and decent 101-level training in European and American History. When confronted with, for example, the Rape of Europa, I have some idea what I am looking at—its not just some weird image of a chick riding on a bull. It is good to be humbled for an evening—having no idea of the significance of what I am looking at, and not really wanting to ask.